Mass, Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein composed Mass at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy and in honour of her late husband. The piece is part Catholic canon and part modern musical, a genre where the composer felt at home. Mass premiered on 8 September 1971 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. It garnered many bad reviews, though audiences appreciated its innovative approach and dramatic arc. After all, one seldom sees a piece of sacred music with full stage settings, dancers, and a multitude of languages and conflicts. This season Bernstein’s Mass receives a warm welcome at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
On the stage of the ancient theatre, Mass can truly unfold its dramatic potential. The historic setting harmonises with the work’s old origins and at the same time contrasts with its modern sensibilities. While many of the passages follow the traditional form and the Latin script, there are English and Hebrew portions as well, written by Stephen Schwartz, Paul Simon, and Bernstein himself. Three different choruses, a corps of ballet dancers, and the modern staging and costumes signify Mass’s definite departure from tradition. The innovation could be mistaken for sacrilege, which partially explains the bad reviews. However, if you leave dogma and prejudice at the door, Mass is going to be a truly transcendental experience.
Bernstein, Schwartz, and Simon made sure to include plenty of social commentary and powerful calls for peace in their work. These elements rang particularly true in 1971 when the United States had several hundred thousand soldiers embroiled in the Vietnam War and conscription was ramping up. Amid calls for peace, Mass traces the gradual splintering of society: the pious clash with the disillusioned, and the rift keeps widening until it reaches an explosive climax. Adept at musical theatre dramatics, Bernstein masterfully guides the audience through this journey and integrates the canonical Catholic mass text within his own performance’s devices. The result, as audiences at the Baths of Caracalla will witness, is an innovative and impactful night of music, dance, drama, and spirituality.